In rural Alaska, online banking comes with challenges | Jobs Recent

NAPASKIAK, Alaska — Megan Williams felt lucky she had $800 in cash when she crossed the river into the nearby town of Bethel.

At the store in his western Alaskan town, Napaskiak, many items are incredibly expensive. A five-pound bag of flour costs $13.85, a two-pound bag of rice costs $9.70 and a 2-liter bottle of Tide detergent costs $28.05.

So every few weeks, Williams goes to buy food for him in Bethel, which is across the Kuskokwim River. Things aren’t cheap there either, as the town of over 6,000 people is not part of the Alaska road system, and everything arrives by boat or plane. But the prices are better than in many of the towns in western Alaska, where goods need another flight to reach the shelves.

During one of Williams’ visits to Bethel, there was an internet outage that disabled credit cards and ATMs.

Williams, who had planned to put $800 into her credit union, instead used the money to buy groceries for her family. Carrying a cart full of items, the 25-year-old stood in the checkout line counting and accounting for her money, while other frustrated shoppers waited. Some travelers take the trip penniless and go home empty-handed.

“I had the right amount. It was crazy, though,” Williams, who is Yup’ik, said in an interview at the village administration office. The building, like others in the village, is high to keep it strong in the region permafrost thaw. There are no roads in Napaskiak, where about 450 residents walk or drive ATVs on the village road.

Although such outages are rare, Williams’ experience highlights a problem affecting residents throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta: unreliable Internet service.

Slow internet speeds are affecting customers’ ability to access the applications of three bank branches in Bethel: First National Bank Alaska, Alaska USA Federal Credit Union and Wells Fargo.

At First National Bank Alaska, branch managers have systems in place so they can continue to serve customers even if they can’t fully connect to the networks.

“We’re going back to the old banks,” said Nili Sundown, branch manager of First National Bank’s Bethel branch in Alaska. “But we never close the bank. … Regardless of the challenges, our doors are open.”

Things are starting to change, thanks to federal grants aimed at expanding access to high-speed, affordable Internet.

Bethel Society recently won a $42 million grant to build a fiber network in the city and four villages in the county, including Napaskiak. The network will be operated by GCI, the main telecommunications provider in the area, which also received $31 million in government grants to provide fiber connections to several other communities in the region.

The projects will mark major improvements to existing infrastructure and “bridge the rural-urban digital divide” in the 10 communities that will benefit, GCI President Greg Chapados said in October. All those communities currently operate on “microwave” systems that are more expensive to maintain than fiber networks.

But for now, GCI customers in and around Bethel pay about $300 a month for download speeds of up to 10 megabits per second, the fastest plan available. In Anchorage, Fairbanks and several “hub” cities north of Bethel, download speeds of up to 2,000 megabits per second cost about $180 a month.

Despite the challenges, the Internet has changed the way banks operate throughout the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta, where the majority of the population is Yup’ik. Among the practical methods is the rapid acceptance of remote check deposits, helping rural residents to avoid going to Bethel or sending checks there.

Murals at Zacharias John Williams School in Napaskiak celebrate Yup’ik lands and culture.

Polo Rocha

Going to Bethel can be expensive. A six-person flight from Napaskiak to Bethel — which takes less than 10 minutes — costs about $180 and offers the only way to get between the two places when the river is too cold but not strong enough to cross.

Chariton Epchook, who lives in the village of Kwethluk, remembers that she sent her checks to the bank and waited several days before the money was deposited into her account. Sometimes, it didn’t come fast enough, causing her to be late on her mortgage and pay a late fee of about $25.

“That was the hardest thing for me,” Epchook said. “Today, all I have to do is go online.”

However, slow internet means it’s not always a breeze to use his Alaska USA Federal Credit Union app. Internet is fast early in the morning, but slow from noon to the end of the day. “It’s a matter of being patient in the afternoon,” Epchook said.

Williams, a Napaskiak resident, said the internet is fastest in her area early in the morning and when children are at school.

“When we know everybody’s asleep — that’s when the Internet is faster,” Williams said.

Williams’ mother, Sharon Williams, is a national director and says the remote deposit made her feel more connected to her credit union, Alaska USA. “Mhm, very close. The tip of my fingers,” he said about how close he felt to his financial institution.

When he was young, Williams said it was difficult to get a loan from a bank. But he recently applied for a loan online at his credit union, Alaska USA, and it was approved immediately. “It was that simple,” she said.

Banks have come “a long way,” he said.

Sharon Williams remembers watching her mother struggle with debt growing up. Many Yup’ik people hunt, fish and gather staple foods in their diet – such as moose, berries and salmon, although they are sharp. diminishing in recent discoveries raises concerns throughout western Alaska.

Williams’ mother was single, which made it difficult for her family to find those sources of food, so the family grew up consuming more expensive proteins such as beef, chicken and pork. To put food on the table, Williams’ mother sometimes turned to payday loan shops, paying high interest rates.

“Man, that lady was tough,” Sharon Williams said.

Today, payday loan borrowers in Alaska pay an average annual interest rate of 417%, which is higher than only six other states in the country where payday lenders operate, according to the report. Pew Charitable Trusts. About 8,400 Alaskans took out payday loans for more than $20 in 2021, according to data from the state’s Division of Banking and Securities. Sixty-eight percent of loans are taken out online, rather than in physical locations.

One item Sharon Williams’ mother took to the pawn shop brought to her mind – a design Williams’ grandmother had made on the floor of a Yup’ik fur parka. “As I got older, I wanted to go and find it,” said Williams.

“It’s really near and dear to my heart,” she said. “Watching him throw away something so important – today, so precious – is heartbreaking.”

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